Understanding upward mobility has been a priority for sociologists in recent years. They used tax records and other data to study the factors that increase the chances that children who grow up in poverty can escape it into adulthood.
Education, ranging from kindergarten to college, appears to play an important role, according to the research. The money itself is also important: longer and deeper episodes of poverty can affect children for decades. Other factors — like avoiding eviction, having access to good medical care, and growing up in a household with two parents — can also make upward mobility more likely.
Now, there’s another intriguing factor to add to the list, thanks to a study published this morning in the academic journal Nature: friendships with people who aren’t poor.
“Growing up in a connected community across grades improves children’s outcomes and gives them a better chance of lifting themselves out of poverty,” said Harvard economist and one of the study’s four lead authors, Raj Chetty, at the Times.
The study attempts to quantify the effect in several ways. One of the clearest, I think, compares two otherwise similar children in low-income households – one growing up in a community where social contact comes mostly from the lower half of the socio-economic distribution, and a another who grows up in a community where contacts come mostly from the upper half.
The average difference between the two, in terms of expected outcomes for adults, is significant, the authors report. It’s the same as the gap between a child growing up in a family earning $27,000 a year and a child growing up in a family earning $47,000.
The study is based on a dizzying amount of data, including the Facebook friendships of 72 million people. (You can explore the results through these charts and maps from The Upshot.)
Robert Putnam – a political scientist who has long studied social interactions, including in his book “Bowling Alone” – said the study was important in part because it hinted at ways to increase upward mobility. “It provides a number of avenues or clues where we could start moving this country in a better direction,” he said.
In recent decades, the United States has moved in the opposite direction. Growing economic inequality and a shortage of new housing in many communities have contributed to increased economic segregation. Even within communities, cross-class social interactions seem to have diminished.
This chart shows how far apart Americans are by class:
Mari Bowie’s Story
There appear to be three main mechanisms by which cross-class friendships can increase a person’s chances of escaping poverty, Chetty told me.
The first is high ambition: social familiarity can give people a clearer idea of what is possible. The second is basic information, such as how to apply to college and get financial aid. The third is networking, like getting a recommendation for an internship.
My colleague Claire Cain Miller, after speaking with the authors of the study over the past few weeks, set out to find concrete examples of her findings. Claire focused on Angelo Rodriguez High School in Fairfield, California, a mid-sized town between Sacramento and Oakland. The school has an unusually high number of cross-class interactions. One of the people Claire interviewed was Mari Bowie, a 24-year-old who grew up in a lower-middle-class family that had to deal with divorce, layoffs and lost homes – and who got lost. befriended richer girls in high school.
“My mom really instilled hard work in us — knowing our family history, you have to be better, you have to do better,” Bowie said. “But I didn’t know anything about the SAT, and my friends’ parents signed up for that class, so I thought I should. I asked relatives of friends to look at my personal statements.
Today, Bowie is a criminal defense attorney. She found her job through the friend of a friend of hers from high school.
How Churches Shine
Angelo Rodriguez High School is a telling case study because it is more economically and racially diverse than most schools. This diversity is necessary for a high level of socio-economic integration. But that’s not enough, say the study authors. In some diverse communities, low-income and high-income Americans lead relatively separate lives.
In others, interactions between classes are more common. The study does not contain a full explanation of the differences. But Claire discovered that the high school had taken intentional steps to connect people.
The school did not attract its students from just one community. Instead, it had an unusually shaped neighborhood, including both poorer and wealthier neighborhoods, and also accepted students from outside that neighborhood’s boundaries. The school’s open architecture also encouraged casual socialization. “Accidental and unstructured interactions between students were a very high priority,” said John Diffenderfer, one of the school’s architects.
What might increase cross-class interactions elsewhere?
Among the promising avenues, the researchers mention: more housing, including subsidized housing, in wealthy neighborhoods; more diverse K-12 schools and colleges; and specific efforts – like public parks that attract a diverse mix of families – to encourage interactions between richer and poorer people.
Churches and other religious organizations can have lessons to teach other parts of society. Although many churches are socioeconomically homogeneous, those with some diversity tend to foster more class interaction than most other social activities. Churches have lower levels of what researchers call the socioeconomic “friendship bias.”
Youth sports, on the other hand, have become more segregated as wealthy families flock to the so-called travel teams.
A successful effort to increase interactions should probably also address the particular roles of the breed. Places that are more racially diverse tend to have fewer cross-class friendships, the study found.
“Our society is structured to discourage these types of cross-class friendships, and many parents, often white, make choices about where to live and what extracurricular activities to place their children in, making these bonds less likely. to happen,” said Jessica Calarco, a sociologist at Indiana University. Claire’s story delves into the role of race in more detail.
The bottom line
The stagnant standard of living of working class and poor Americans is such a huge problem that no amount of change will solve it. But the explosion of academic research on upward mobility, including this new study, has at least offered a clearer idea of what might help. Social integration seems to play a crucial role.
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